Archive for the 'Thomas McKinney' Category

Thomas McKinney

December 11, 2010


Simplified Visual Language in an Age of Misinformation

Important issues often suffer because of their complex nature. The science behind climate change for example is broad in scope and often requires esoteric knowledge in order to grasp the significance of a given point. This inherent complexity opens the door to obfuscators—those with ideologies or interests that conflict with the possible consequences of acknowledging a fact or set of facts. These people—knowingly or unknowingly—introduce fallacious arguments into the flow of factual information. This often results in a false balance or “teach the controversy” situation wherein facts and opinions are seen as interchangeable to some.

The obfuscators usually gain the upper hand at some point in the discussion because the counterpoint to a fact is often based on fear or prejudice. Fear, prejudice, and similar emotions are easily conveyable messages. The slogan to “Teach the Controversy” has become the motto of obfuscators of every stripe—create a controversy where none exists, simplify the message, preach it loud and preach it often.

For example, the vaccine/autism correlation has been falsified by science for years, but the anti-vaccine movement is still going strong. The false idea that the MMR vaccine caused autism began the movement. Once that was shown to be false, the goalpost was moved to the safety of specific ingredients in vaccines, then on to the combinations in which vaccines are given, then on to the number of vaccines given to children, and so on. At each step, the anti-vaccine movement has had a simple message and a simple slogan: “Vaccines Cause Autism”, “Get Mercury Out of Vaccines”, “Green Our Vaccines”, and “Too Many Too Soon”, just to name a few. By contrast, the language used by scientists and medical professional to argue in support of the facts has not been so well honed. Doctors and medical researchers often use jargon that is inaccessible to the general public in discussing the safety of vaccine ingredients or the validity of a clinical study.

I think that one thing is clear: a simplified message is needed to eradicate campaigns of obfuscation and misinformation. I believe designers are uniquely positioned to counteract such movements through the use of visual language.

I intend to counteract misinformation with simplified visual language.

Case Studies
1. This American Life Podcast, “Kid Politics”, (a discussion between scientist Roberta Johnson and a high school student).

2. Suzanne Mettler’s article in Perspectives on Politics contains a table that shows the percentage of people who benefit from various government programs while claiming in response to a government survey that they “have not used a government social program.” The second image is a simplified visual representation of this information (which could have been executed better, but still serves as a good example of what I’m talking about).

3. David McCandless, (click image for link)

David McCandless, (click image for link)

David McCandless

Nigel Holmes

Richard Saul Wurman

Stefan Sagmeister

Reading Log
On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt

Seed Magazine, Both Science and Design—Forward Motors, Providers of Perspective, Guardians of Beauty and Truth—Are Essential to Progress, Paola Antonelli

Seed Magazine, Adding Art and Design to Science Education Would Put a Bit of Humanity Back into the Innovation Engine and Lead to the Most Meaningful Find of Progress, John Maeda

Print Magazine, Warm Regards, Rick Poyner

Reality Branding: Addressing Real Concerns and Real Needs, Nancy Bernard

Countering the Tradition of the Apolitical Designer, Katherine McCoy

The Social Role of the Graphic Designer, Pierre Bernard

Second Round

Proposal 1 – Communicating Climate Change

I’ve considered refocusing this direction looking at unintended consequences of using hyperbolic imagery in infographics. After the recent shootings in Tucson, Arizona, Sarah Palin and her political action committee received criticism for placing crosshairs over the “targeted” districts of political opponents. The intention of this imagery was to rally her supporters, however, the graphic was seen as adding to the vitriolic climate of today’s politics.

Proposal 2 – Life in Motion

The idea of adding motion to typographic information to enhance the way in which we process that information is an intriguing concept tome, but I don’t feel passionate about it. The work of Jonathan Harris as presented in his Cold+Bold talk ( has been a good starting point, but further study is still needed in this area.

Proposal 3 – The Role of Plagiarism in Design

I became interested in the role of plagiarism in design during the 2008 Presidential election and the Shepard Fairey/AP Hope poster controversy. Children, teens and young college students are constantly warned about the consequences of plagiarizing an essay or a research paper. In terms of design however, a certain level of plagiarism is not only accepted, it’s implicitly encouraged by the fact that designers like Shepard Fairey become extremely successful by “referencing” other artists. I read the article “What’s Wrong with Plagiarism?” by Gunnar Swanson on this topic. In this article, Swanson defines the terms used in discussing plagiarism (i.e. morals, ethics, rights, interests, etc.) and discusses a spectrum of common arguments regarding the topic. I have also read and watched interviews with Milton Glaser about his position on plagiarism in design.

First Round

Proposal 1 – Communicating Climate Change

An abundance of inaccessible language plays a key role in the public’s misunderstanding and mistrust of climate change science. Scientific charts and graphs are often ignored or misinterpreted by the layperson.
I intend to show that by utilizing familiar visual language, climate science could be communicated in a manner that could deepen public understanding of climate change. One possibility for a direction could include putting polar ice cap loss into perspective by visually comparing the data with something more accessible, such as the annual water consumption of a major industrialized country.

Proposal 2 – Life in Motion

I intend to show that bringing motion to typographic information is preferable when attempting to capture and hold an audience’s attention. The project that inspired me to this proposal was Dave Harper’s MFA graphic design thesis show at Indiana University called “veins of life” ( Harper’s final exhibition included three motion design pieces, one accordion-fold booklet, one interactive desktop application, and four wall displays of information graphics in order to communicate his message on sustainable farming practices. I will also be investigating the work of Jonathan Harris, among others.

Proposal 3 – Smart Packaging

I am interested in package design. As I walked down the cereal isle at the grocery store, I noticed two things: First, nearly all of the packages were basically the same shape and secondly, that all the package designs are essentially held hostage to the conventional cereal box model. I will examine how the design maxim form follows function could be used to develop truly sustainable